The FBI's Nearly Unbelievable Record of "Justified" Shootings

Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
June 19 2013 10:19 AM

The FBI's Nearly Unbelievable Record of "Justified" Shootings

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In this booking photo provided by the Orange County Sheriff's Office, Ibragim Todashev poses for his mug shot after being arrested for aggravated battery May 4, 2013 in Orlando, Florida.

Photo by Orange County Sheriff's Office via Getty Images

We're still waiting for the FBI to finish its internal investigation into exactly what happened in an Orlando apartment last month, when an FBI agent shot and killed Ibragim Todashev, a Chechan man who knew Boston bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev. Since the shooting, unnamed officials have painted a number of different pictures of the scene in the room in the moments before the agent opened fire. Among them, that Todashev was unarmed, that he was brandishing a knife, and that he was carrying a pipe or maybe a broomstick.

Josh Voorhees Josh Voorhees

Josh Voorhees is a Slate senior writer. He lives in Iowa City. 

For all the current uncertainty surrounding exactly what led the agent to shoot and kill Todashev, the bureau's next step appears almost a foregone conclusion: Based on recent history, the FBI's final report is all but certain to conclude that the shooting was justified. The New York Times with the agency's eye-raising track record:

[F]rom 1993 to early 2011, F.B.I. agents fatally shot about 70 "subjects" and wounded about 80 others — and every one of those episodes was deemed justified, according to interviews and internal F.B.I. records obtained by The New York Times through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. The last two years have followed the same pattern: an F.B.I. spokesman said that since 2011, there had been no findings of improper intentional shootings. ...
Out of 289 deliberate shootings covered by the documents, many of which left no one wounded, five were deemed to be "bad shoots," in agents' parlance — encounters that did not comply with the bureau's policy, which allows deadly force if agents fear that their lives or those of fellow agents are in danger. A typical punishment involved adding letters of censure to agents' files. But in none of the five cases did a bullet hit anyone.
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Depending on how you read those numbers—more than 150 shootings that wounded or killed a subject in the past 20 years, all justified; 284 deliberate shootings in all, 279 justified—that's either an extraordinary track record, or an unbelievable one. Regardless, it raises some obvious red flags about the fairness and validity of those internal reviews. Perhaps as troubling, as the Times explains, is that in most of those cases the FBI internal investigation was the only inquiry into the shooting, as it currently is in the Orlando incident.

Go check out the full NYT piece here, which also breaks down the conflicting accounts of a 2002 shooting the agency declared justified that independent investigators weren't so sure about. (During the episode in question an agent shot an innocent Maryland man in the head after mistaking him for a bank robber.)

***Follow @JoshVoorhees and the rest of the @slatest team on Twitter, and read more on Slate about the Boston Marathon bombing.***

This post has been updated for clarity.

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